Turkey Scratch, Arkansas is just a few miles across the Mississippi River from where I am now sitting in Memphis. It is where Levon Helm grew up amid the cotton fields and the fiddlers playing a blend of gospel, country and hillbilly music that would eventually find its way to Memphis and evolve into the blues, rockabilly and rock and roll. Levon and The Band defined the music of my generation in the 60’s and 70’s. He provided the foundation that contributed to my growth as a human being as much as my family of origin did. Growing up near Boston, Massachusetts was as far removed from Turkey Scratch as one could be in 1968. But it was Levon and his generation of musicians that played a vital role in my upbringing.
And it was my brother and the legacy of his tragic death in 1966 that left me hanging on to the music he loved. The music we shared was a way for me to stay connected to the memory of our listening to the tinny sounds of Motown and Bob Dylan on his transistor radio. My brother was also a guitarist and I still have and treasure the sheet music that he used to learn to play some of his favorite songs.
And that is how I fell in love with the music of Levon Helm. As I grew up listening to the music that my brother would have loved, I found that I always gravitated back to the sounds of Bob Dylan, and eventually “The Last Waltz” became my favorite album of all time. All the artists featured on the album were those that defined my generation: Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmy Lou Harris. And of course the fine band that played with them.
I regret that I never went to a Midnight Ramble, most notably the Ramble at the Ryman in 2008 just up the road in Nashville. But I was fortunate enough to see Levon Helm and his band, including his daughter Amy perform in Tunica, Mississippi two years ago. And it was a memorable performance.
And so that is how I will remember Mr. Helm. Playful and serious as a performer and always, always talented. Thank you for the music that will forever remind me of the early days in 1966 – sharing a love of music with my brother that became the seed for embracing the music of my generation.